Thursday, 6 March 2014

A Syrian Kitchen in Italy

A Syrian Kitchen in Italy

With thanks to Zaid and his family for
 letting me share this story.

Back in the August 2008, I visited Damascus, the capital city of Syria. On my first night there, which happened to be the first night of the festival of Eid, or Ramadan, a seventeen year old boy called Zaid, or "Zo" as I knew him then, invited me to his home to meet his family. They welcomed me in and asked me to stay and share the incredible feast that followed their first day of fasting. I wrote a bit about it in my earlier post, Learning Arabic (al arabeyha العربية)Zaid then showed me around, leaving me with beautiful memories of his city. 


Damascus, 2008.

When Zaid, his mother and his younger brother arrived in Italy from Damascus as refugees this February 2014, they asked me to visit them. I took a train from Geneva to Milan as soon as I could. It had been six years since I had seen the family waiting for me in the small Italian town of Lecco, thirty miles north of Milan. In those six years they had lost family members, their home, and their futures in a civil war that has devastated Syria since 2012. The last time I had seen Zaid was on Skype last year and he had been in bed nursing a chest full of shrapnel from a blast near his apartment building in Damascus. 

As I stepped down off the train I wondered if what Zaid had been living had changed him, but when I saw my friend waiting for me on the platform it was his smile I saw first. It was as friendly as that seventeen year old smile in his home city all those years ago, and his hug was just as warm.

'I grew up, huh?' he grinned, stroking the fluffy stubble at his chin. He had! The shy boy who loved to talk to strangers had grown into a young man who could drive, speak Italian, dress wounds. Here was a young man who had moved to Italy to secure refugee status for his family. 

Zaid in Lecco, Italy. February, 2014.

We took a train out of town to where his car was waiting. For most people the sight of the mountains fringing famous Lakes Como and Maggiore would inspire wonder, but for Zaid and his family the region represents an exile, a new home they must learn to accept. As we drove towards the mountains we began to talk about things that had passed in the intervening years. 

Zaid told me that when the conflict began he had worked with the Red Crescent and the ICRC in Syria, travelling to Beirut in Lebanon to take his nurse training. After a while he decided to train as a doctor in Tblisi, Georgia, but left when the floods of 2012 hit the city. Carrying his suitcase above his head, he had no choice but to return to Damascus, where he continued to work for the Red Crescent. He left for Italy in 2013 when his mother felt it was not safe to stay in Damascus any longer and his father could not leave his job in Syrian customs. For now, Zaid's life is on hold until his little brother is settled in a good school, and until his mother knows enough Italian to get by on her own. Even then, he is not sure if he can leave them.

When I saw Zaid's mother, Nisreen, and little brother, Tarek, again, I gave them the three kisses, the bises, we give in Switzerland. Tarek had grown up into a handsome fourteen year old, quiet and polite, with a smile so big it was impossible to hide when I spoke my beginner's Arabic. A weekend of teasing was set to begin: I laughed at Tarek for having hair like Justin Beiber and he laughed at me for speaking terrible Arabic.

One of the things that really struck me was the different impact the situation in Syria has had on each generation of the family. Zaid has dropped everything to take care of his family. Tarek has now started at a new school in a new country knowing very little of the language. Nisreen has left her husband and law degree of three years because Tarek's school was bombed and she starting fearing for his life. She explained how life in Damascus was becoming unbearable. The stories of bodies showing up in black bags - revenge killings - were circling too close to home. So the family were setting up a new home, in a new land, with dishes rinsed in the bathroom and the kitchen piping leaking. Slowly they were getting settled. As I put down my bag, I noticed strips of masking tape all over the walls, with Arabic words followed by Italian words. Throughout the weekend the three of them would take out their books and study Italian, a language they would have to learn to adjust to their new lives. 


Plans for the weekend were simple: we would cook, we would shop, and we would cook again. There was food to prepare, and every dish I remembered and mentioned was met with a knowing look, a smile, and a 'tomorrow, tomorrow!'. Nisreen was already making chicken maklobeh مقلوبة بالدجاج when I arrived, a dish made with fragrant rice, pine nuts and chicken. I began to chop spring onions and coriander with her, exchanging the names of all the things we were chopping up in English and Arabic. We began to make dolma, rice wrapped in grape vine leaves.

ورق عنب محشي

warak enab mehshi (dolma)

You'll need: grape vine leaves, rice, olive oil, onions, mint, lemon juice, 
parsley, salt & pepper.

The evening I arrived we walked around the Italian fruit market, comparing the size and tastes of Italian fruits to those found in Syria. I have quite dark colouring so wondered if I looked like part of the family. I certainly experienced what Nisreen had spoken to me about on the way into town: the far from welcoming sideways glances from local people. Nevertheless, we all knew that compared to the millions of Syrian refugees living in refugee camps, the small town of Lecco was luxurious and being able to go shopping was a privilege many did not have.

I introduced Zaid and his family to a pumpkin and suggested that, if they liked, I could teach them to make pumpkin soup. They loved this idea, but when I said I would make the soup for lunch the next day they looked at me in horror. The reaction was priceless. In tandem, both mouths dropped as Zaid and his mother cried: 'only soup?'

It was only the next day that I truly began to understand why the prospect of only soup for lunch was ridiculous. Every meal was an opportunity to feast, taste, prepare, chop, blend, bind and season - to become engulfed in the magic of cooking.
Whenever the heaviness of the situation came too close, we simply began to prepare the next meal. It was a distraction, a joy, something familiar to do that would always result in happiness. 

In the same way that I have seen bereaved parents coping with the death of a child by making their way through each minute, each moment, before they consider how they will make it through each hour, each day, I saw this family coming together to throw themselves into the preparation of wonderful food, to put aside the weight of their situation for the hours it would take to lovingly recreate flavours of home.

بابا غنوج

baba ganoush

You'll need: aubergine, olive oil, tahini, garlic, parsely, lemon juice, salt & pepper.

We spent most of the weekend cooking, taking hours to prepare for a brief taste of a Syrian kitchen, forgetting the news, ignoring the European mountains outside and the rude Italian landlady. The time and love that went into those dishes was incredible; every squeeze of lemon juice, every splash of tahini, every bunch of coriander was woven into the deliciousness people have sat down to eat in Syria and across the Middle East for centuries. 

فول مدمس
foul mdammas

You'll need: fava beans, lemon juice, olive oil, coriander, tomatoes, onions, salt & pepper.

As we cooked, Nisreen paused to ask me if when I was in Damascus I felt unrest or any sign of what was to happen. I tried to answer as honestly as I could: that I had been nineteen, naive, and nothing I had seen in my brief few weeks in Syria had warned me of what would come to pass in their country. I had felt an overwhelming sense of hospitality, of tradition and history layered in the archways, souks and streets of the city.

When I sat and ate with Zaid's family on the first night of Eid in 2008, I didn't expect our next encounter to be in Italy in 2014, teaching them to make pumpkin soup and learning how to make baba ganoush because their country would be in ruins. But it was a long-anticipated reunion nonetheless, however bittersweet, and I look forward to seeing them all again soon. Until then, I'm wishing Zaid and his family health, peace and hope this 2014.

Thanks for reading.

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